A Hierarchy of Lies and Falsehood

by Benjamin Studebaker

The 2016 election has been full of lies and falsehood. Candidates routinely say things that are not true or make misleading and fallacious arguments. But not all lies are equal–some are more damaging than others, some may even appear justifiable. So today I’d like to break down the different kinds of lies in politics and think about which ones are the most objectionable. To spice things up, we’ll include examples from the campaign of each kind of lie. Are you ready? Let’s go.

In this election fact-checking websites have played an increasingly prominent role, particularly for Democrats (as the fact checkers consistently agree that Republicans lie more):

But these fact checkers only evaluate a relatively narrow set of political claims–descriptive fact claims. We can divide political falsehoods into two broad categories:

  1. Descriptive Falsehood–claims about reality that are false.
  2. Normative Falsehood–claims about what we should do that are false.

Normative truth claims are much more heavily contested than descriptive claims, and any fact-checking website which weighed in on normative claims would immediately be accused of bias. But of course, if we limit our analysis to descriptive claims we box out many of the most important political claims that politicians and parties make–their claims about what we should do.

There’s also another binary in political falsehood which is to do with intent:

  1. Honest mistakes–claims which are false but which the politician does not know to be false.
  2. Intentional lies–claims which are false and are known by the politician to be false.

It is always very difficult to know a politician’s intentions when speaking false, and it’s not obvious that we should prefer someone who makes honest mistakes to someone who lies intentionally–a person who makes honest mistakes my be stupid, and a manipulative bastard politician is arguably preferable to a stupid know-nothing.

Within the category of descriptive falsehood, there are a number of subtypes:

  1. Lying about the basic facts
  2. Lying about policy
  3. Lying about institutions
  4. Lying about oneself

And within the category of normative falsehood, there is a sharp division:

  1. Lying about ends
  2. Lying about means

There is also another binary which we can apply to descriptive falsehoods:

  1. Noble Lies/Benign Mistakes–descriptive falsehoods that serve normative truths
  2. Vicious Lies/Vicious Ignorance–descriptive falsehoods that serve normative falsehoods

Here’s a handy little chart that lays all of this out:


I’ll say a bit more about each and give an example. To be clear, we can never be sure about intent, so we can never be sure whether a falsehood is an intentional lie or an honest mistake. When I classify a statement as one or the other, it is an educated guess. We cannot know the mind of the speakers well enough to be 100% certain that a statement is intentional or mistaken. It’s also possible, especially with normative falsehood, that you and I might not agree on which statements are false and which statements are true. Many kinds of statements are hard to evaluate, which is why PolitiFact and other fact checkers avoid them (as a political theorist, I make a point to emphasize normative falsehood on this blog). We will proceed beginning with the most damaging falsehoods and proceeding to the last harmful:

Normative Falsehood–Lies and Mistakes about Ends

Lies and mistakes about ends attempt to convince the public that the government ought to pursue some objective which it should not pursue. One common falsehood about ends is that government should make investment decisions in the same way that a business would, to generate profit. But many programs which serve the public interest do not generate profit, and many programs that might generate profit would not serve the public interest. Government makes investments in things like medical research, infrastructure, the military, or public schools from which it does not intend to generate immediate direct profit. These investments are long-term investments in the public welfare and in the economy which may not pay off at all and if they do pay off would do so many years from now, far beyond the time horizon of most businesses. Another related normative falsehood is the claim that the government must always deliver a balanced budget–governments sometimes need to borrow money to stabilize the economy in times of crisis or to finance wars, and they are able to borrow more freely than businesses because they have much greater access to credit. Another example might be the claim made in the 60s and 70s that the United States needed to prevent Soviet communism from spreading to Vietnam. That belief caused the government to squander a lot of money and manpower on a country of limited strategic value in a failed effort that ultimately proved irrelevant to the survival of the Soviet system. Now, some politicians know that government cannot be run like a business, they know that government sometimes needs to borrow money, and they know that Vietnam was strategically unimportant and they quote these lines anyway while others are just a bit thick and can’t see the mistakes. But either way, normative falsehoods about ends are extremely damaging because they pervert the machinery of government on a fundamental level. So I regard normative falsehoods to be the most pernicious and damaging, regardless of whether they are honest mistakes or intentional lies.

Normative Falsehood–Lies and Mistakes about Means

Lies and mistakes about means attempt to convince the public that the government ought to pursue some acceptable objective through a means that does not work. For instance, when it comes to healthcare Donald Trump wants to pursue a noble objective–getting every American covered. In 2000, he said:

I’m a conservative on most issues but a liberal on health. It is an unacceptable but accurate fact that the number of uninsured Americans has risen to 42 million. Working out detailed plans will take time. But the goal should be clear: Our people are our greatest asset. We must take care of our own. We must have universal healthcare.

But the plan he has proposed to replace Obamacare doesn’t achieve this goal–it increases the number of uninsured Americans. He claims that allowing insurance companies to compete across state lines will handle the uninsured, but the research we have on this proposal says it won’t do nearly enough to make up for the effects of repealing Obamacare:

So when Trump says we should get rid of Obamacare to improve healthcare provision, he is engaging in a means falsehood. Regardless of whether he does this intentionally or honestly, I’d argue that this kind of falsehood is very dangerous, second only to falsehoods about normative ends, because leading the public to believe that ineffective (or in this case, counterproductive) proposals will help achieve our goals leads us down a path that is similar in its consequences to the path we would choose if we were mistaken about our ends. Trump’s plan looks like the sort of plan you would propose if you believed it was unimportant to ensure all Americans have access to healthcare, so while it’s a means falsehood it produces consequences that resemble those of an ends falsehood. The only redeeming feature of means falsehoods is that because those who utter them are not lying or mistaken about ends, our disagreement with them is less fundamental and they are potentially easier to persuade to change positions.

Descriptive Falsehood–Vicious Lies and Vicious Ignorance

Vicious Lies and Ignorance about Institutions

These falsehoods mislead the public about the way political institutions work, causing the public to pursue political strategies that will fail. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both implicitly accused one another of lying about institutions. Clinton said:

And like a lot of people, I am concerned that some of his ideas just won’t work, because the numbers don’t add up. Others won’t even pass Congress, or they rely on Republican governors suddenly having a conversion experience and becoming progressives.

In the first sentence, she accuses Sanders of being wrong about policy, but in the second she accuses him of being wrong about institutions, of misunderstanding the institutional capabilities of the congress and of state governments. Sanders and his supporters made counterarguments about the policy and argued that Sanders could build electoral support in congress over time and that his laws could be written in a way that would circumvent problem governors. They counter-argued that Clinton was the one misleading the public about institutions because she claims she will make reforms that she cannot make because she is in the pocket of Wall Street, and some argued that many Clinton’s compromises were often one-sided and did more harm than good (e.g. welfare reform). Said Sanders:

Can you really reform Wall Street when they are spending millions and millions of dollars on campaign contributions, and when they are providing speaker fees to individuals?

Clinton tended to respond to this line of attack by arguing that Barack Obama was not influenced by Wall Street in spite of his own financial connections:

Make no mistake about it, this is not just an attack on me, it’s an attack on President Obama. Let me tell you why — you may not like it, but let me tell you why. President Obama had a super-PAC. President Obama raised tens of millions of dollars from campaign contributors, and President Obama was not at all influenced when he made the decision to pass and sign Dodd Frank, the toughest regulation on Wall Street in many a year.

Of course, Sanders supporters believe that Dodd-Frank did not go far enough and they suspect this was due to politicians’ financial connections to Wall Street. The recent paid Clinton speeches leaked by Wikileaks may have lent credence to this counterargument. In them, Clinton is quoted implying she only supported Dodd-Frank reluctantly for political reasons:

There was a lot of complaining about Dodd-Frank, but there was also a need to do something because, for political reasons, if you were an elected member of Congress and people in your constituency were losing jobs and shutting businesses and everybody in the press is saying it’s all the fault of Wall Street, you can’t sit idly by and do nothing, but what you do is really important.

It matters tremendously whether Clinton or Sanders is correct about our institutions. The one who is wrong potentially leads a political movement toward a dead end. Generally people tend to believe that if Clinton is wrong she is intentionally lying (as part of a system of lies about her beliefs) and if Sanders is wrong he is making an honest mistake, but that might not be the case. In any event, because falsehoods about institutions have the potential to completely stymie otherwise well-meaning political movements with the potential to succeed if they were to pursue alternative strategies, they are deeply dangerous.

Vicious Lies and Ignorance about the Basic Facts

These falsehood mislead the public about the way world is to encourage the public to take incorrect normative positions. Donald Trump frequently makes demonstrably false claims about the crime rate in cities:

Inner-city crime is reaching record levels.

There is no statistical basis for this claim, which means that Trump has knowingly made it up:

He has done this to encourage voters to support policies racial profiling, which in addition to being deeply racist doesn’t work (making it a means falsehood). His claims about climate change are similar, but it’s more likely in this case that he is just making an honest mistake. Nevertheless, Trump’s honest mistake about climate change probably has more destructive potential than his intentional lie about urban crime. Falsehoods about the basic facts can build up, constructing an alternative false reality in which problems are manufactured that do not exist while other real problems are dismissed as imaginary. This is a form of collective political gaslighting which encourages the public to waste resources on imagined threats and ignore real problems until it is too late, with large negative consequences.

Vicious Lies and Ignorance about Policy

These lies misrepresent the way a policy functions to generate support or opposition. George W. Bush falsely claimed the Bush tax cuts would primarily benefit poor and middle income Americans to convince them to support the cuts:

Most of the tax cuts went to low- and middle-income Americans.

But this was nowhere close to true:

These falsehoods relate to falsehoods about the basic facts in much the same way that normative means falsehoods relate to ends falsehoods–they may discuss policies that target real problems but they cause us to leave those policies intact by encouraging us to embrace policies that will fail. The core difference between a policy falsehood and a means falsehood is the emphasis on the descriptive versus the normative. A policy falsehood says “this policy will/won’t do this thing that it actually won’t/will do”. A means falsehood says “therefore, we should embrace this policy”. Policy and means falsehoods often go together–when Trump says we should repeal Obamacare, he engages in a means falsehood, and he supports that means falsehood by committing a policy falsehood about the consequences of getting rid of the lines between the states (exaggerating the positive effects of that policy).

Vicious Lies and Ignorance about Oneself

Here politicians lie about what they have done or will do. This kind of falsehood has more limited consequences, because it applies only to one individual rather than an entire system of institutions, facts, or policies. It is possible to make an honest mistake about oneself if one combines the mistake about oneself with a further mistake about institutions. For instance, if Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton is mistaken about how our institutions work, he/she would also be mistaken about his/her claims about what he/she would do as president. Many politicians may genuinely believe they will accomplish things they may not eventually accomplish. But often politicians lie about themselves to get elected, and they do so viciously when this is in service of a bad ends or means.

Hillary Clinton is frequently accused by opponents of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) of lying viciously about her own stance on trade. She called TPP the “gold standard” of trade deals:

This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.

When pressed on this by Sanders during the primary, Clinton flipped positions. She claimed this was on the basis of new information:

Well, actually, I have been very consistent. Over the course of my entire life, I have always fought for the same values and principles, but, like most human beings–including those of us who run for office–I do absorb new information. I do look at what’s happening in the world. Take the trade deal. I did say, when I was secretary of state, three years ago, that I hoped it would be the gold standard. It was just finally negotiated last week, and in looking at it, it didn’t meet my standards. My standards for more new, good jobs for Americans, for raising wages for Americans. And I want to make sure that I can look into the eyes of any middle-class American and say, “this will help raise your wages.” And I concluded I could not.

If instead she changed positions to win votes and has no intention of opposing TPP once elected and TPP is in fact a bad trade deal (as many on the left believe it to be), then this would be a vicious lie.

In addition to lying about yourself, you can lie about other people’s records or intentions. Ted Cruz loves to do this sort of thing. One of his most vicious lies drew a false equivalence among the healthcare policy intentions of Trump, Clinton, and Sanders:

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have the identical position on health care, which is they want to put the government in charge of you and your doctor.

Sometimes the same lie about oneself is either vicious or noble depending on who is speaking. If two politicians both are accused of having affairs, and both politicians deny the affair when in fact it did happen, and neither of the politicians are caught in this lie, but one of the politicians regularly embraces normative falsehoods and the other regularly embraces normative truths, the normatively correct politician is achieving something positive by weathering the scandal in a way that the normatively incorrect politician is not. For this reason, there is no inconsistency in hoping that sex scandals will destroy the politicians whose normative causes you believe to be false and hoping that politicians who embrace causes you believe to be true will weather similar scandals. Speaking of which…

Noble Lies and Benign Accidents

Sometimes a politician lies to advance a good cause. Of course, if a politician is widely caught in this lie, the lie is very likely to backfire. A lie that backfires, even if it is intended to serve a good cause, is a vicious lie because it undermines the cause it’s intended to serve. Since it is hard to predict what lies will backfire and many lies can backfire easily, noble lies are very rare. They are difficult to identify because if you could easily identify them they would backfire. We can often see what noble lies might look like only by observing cases of backfiring lies that are ultimately vicious.

One example of a backfiring lie that might have been noble is “traingate”, the infamous summertime scandal in which British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was believed to have been caught lying about being on an overcrowded train:

Some people dispute that this was really a lie, but it’s widely believed to be a lie and so politically it has the same consequences as a lie even if it’s true. Corbyn sought to highlight problems with Britain’s rail service, and according to many people who ride that particular train it is in fact frequently overcrowded. So if Corbyn did lie, he lied about his own anecdotal experience and about some basic facts in the service of wider true claims about statistical outcomes and about the existence of a real normative problem which ought to be solved (I leave it to you for the moment to determine whether his proposed solution, railway nationalization, is the appropriate means). Had Corbyn not been caught, his lie would have served a good political cause and potentially helped in the long-run to relive overcrowding on Britain’s rail lines. But instead he was caught, so instead of a noble lie, it’s a vicious one.

Sometimes a noble lie or benign accident is caught by some people, but not by enough to counter its effectiveness. In 2012, Barack Obama falsely claimed that Mitt Romney wanted to fire Big Bird:

In reality, Romney indicated he wanted to cut the subsidy to PBS but anticipated that it could survive without the subsidy. He said:

Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.

Obama exaggerated Romney’s intentions, but many people believed the lie and it damaged the Romney campaign. Romney had an economic policy agenda that included union busting and regressive tax cuts. By protecting us from those policies without backfiring, this lie was arguably noble. By raising the issue of Romney’s spending priorities, the lie also gave Romney opponents an opportunity to make arguments against him that were not deceptive, as I did at the time. Nevertheless, if you catch a lie that serves a cause you believe is normatively correct, it’s likely that other people will also catch it, so we should be careful about calling the lies we’ve caught noble lies. It is only in retrospect that we can clearly say that Obama got away with that one.

A single noble lie that backfires can immensely damage your credibility, often beyond repair. So while I believe in theory that it is sometimes ethical to engage in noble lies if you are certain to get away with them, in practice I don’t do it because I don’t believe the risk to my credibility is worthwhile. Of course, if I did do it, telling you I don’t do it would be a noble lie about myself. There is also a potential issue with normative confidence–if we are not absolutely certain that we are right about our normative beliefs, that increases the risk that lies which we believe to be noble will turn out to have been vicious because the normative beliefs we use to justify them may be mistaken.

Nevertheless, in theory a noble lie could be justifiable, if it really did serve a correct normative cause and did not backfire. Clinton routinely lies about Trump to make him seem more unreasonable and more dangerous than he is. Yet Trump is unreasonable and is dangerous, to some degree. He has made many false normative claims and many false descriptive claims about the basic facts and policy that are helping to gaslight millions of Americans about the true state of affairs in the country. If Clinton’s lies about Trump turn out to be the difference between having a Trump presidency and not having one, those lies might well have been justifiable in retrospect. Nevertheless, when I see them I expect other people are also seeing them, which means they may be backfiring. So I try to discourage them when I notice them, and I advise you to do the same.